6 Tips for Creating More Captivating Landscape Photographs

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If landscape photography is your passion, you probably love to visit new places, and photograph beautiful natural scenes. But have you ever been unable to capture the beauty you saw in front of you in your camera? Do your images come out flat and boring? With these six tips, you’ll take your photography to the next level by creating more captivating landscape photographs that really stand out.

1. Time your shoot for the perfect light

Making interesting photographs is all about the light. Boring light creates boring photographs. Dramatic light creates dramatic photographs. Once you find a scene to work with, be patient and wait for the dramatic light that will enhance your image. You may even have to return on a different day to make the most of the scene.

Devils Tower, Wyoming by Anne McKinnell

The quality of the light that illuminates your scene is going to change depending on the weather and the time of day.

Weather

The effect that weather has on your photo is usually obvious – a clear, blue sky gives a distinctly different feeling than dark storm clouds. Direct sunlight causes high contrast and dark, clear shadows – but the light becomes soft and even on an overcast day.

Time of Day

We know that the sun rises in the east and sets in the west, but the direction of the sun with respect to your landscape also makes a big difference. It could mean the difference between the sun being in, or out of the frame. It determines which side of a mountain is lit, and can change the way the shadows fall in a grove of trees.

When you’re scouting your location, try to figure out where the sun will be at different times of day, what effect that will have on your landscape, and when you think the light will be at its best. This can be as simple as deciding whether you are at a sunset or sunrise location, so you know the best time to return to the scene.

Joshua Tree National Park by Anne McKinnell

Keep in mind, as well, that the colour of the light changes throughout the day. When the sun is low in the sky (towards sunrise or sunset) the light takes on a warm golden hue, but in the middle of the day the light turns a brighter white. Just after the sun sets, and again before it rises, the blue hours give a scene a soft, cool tone.

2. Use the right equipment

Use a tripod to keep your camera steady and allow for longer exposures. A tripod will also help you be more purposeful in the way you compose the frame.

Choose your lens based on the type of photograph you want to make. A grand vista type of landscape photograph is usually made with a wide-angle lens, with a focal length below 35mm. The shorter your focal length, the larger your angle of view, and the more of the scene you can fit in the photo. However, by doing this you shrink everything within the frame.

Ajo Sunset by Anne McKinnell

If there is something in your frame that you want to appear large in the scene, using a longer focal length will emphasize it. Longer focal lengths are also excellent for more intimate landscapes that do not include a massive expanse of space.

3. Use the right camera settings

Understanding the exposure triangle is critical when it comes to choosing the best camera settings. Generally, for landscape photographs where nothing is moving in the scene, you don’t need to worry about shutter speed, especially if you are using a tripod (see tip #2 above).

In landscape photography, one very important setting is aperture, since that controls the depth of field in your image. When making a grand vista type landscape, you usually want everything from foreground to background to be in sharp focus.

To get your photo sharp all the way through, use a small aperture, like f/11, to maximize your depth of field. However, smaller doesn’t always mean sharper – because of an optical phenomenon called diffraction, images tend to get softer when the aperture is too small. Therefore, the clearest images are typically made closer to the middle of a lens’ aperture range. I recommend shooting landscapes at f/11 instead of f/22 for the sharpest possible photo.

Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument Arizona by Anne McKinnell

That leaves ISO as the last factor in the exposure triangle. For the best image quality, your ISO should be set to a low value, like ISO 100.

If nothing is moving in your landscape, use aperture priority mode, set the aperture to f/11, set the ISO to 100, and then let the camera calculate the appropriate shutter speed to get a good exposure.

However, if there is something moving in the scene, you can set a higher ISO, to allow for a faster shutter speed.

4. Separate your foreground, middle ground, and background

When composing your landscape photo, try to arrange it with elements in the foreground, middle ground, and background. Make sure they are framed to be distinct, and separate from each other, in order to create a sense of depth that draws the viewer into the picture.

Big Bend National Park , Texas, by Anne McKinnell

Background features are common things like mountains, the horizon, and sky – while foregrounds can be nearby objects such as trees, grasses, man-made objects, and even rocks on the ground in front of the camera. The middle ground, of course, is everything in between that occupies the main part of the scene.

Not all photographs have these three distinct areas, but if you can compose your image so it does, you’ll have a photo with great depth and more impact.

5. Include a point of focus

Sunsets and forests and seashores are beautiful, but they need something small to give them a sense of scale. Almost anything can serve this purpose – a person walking through the scene, a single silhouetted tree, a boat floating in a lake, a dock, or an animal – anything to give scale to the immensity of the landscape and create something for the eye to be drawn to.

Clark Dry Lake by Anne McKinnell

6. Bracket your shots

Landscape scenes can be very high in contrast, so it’s a good idea to shoot a few different exposures to make sure you get details in both the highlights and shadows. Some cameras will have an automatic bracketing feature built-in, but if not, you can do this manually. Simply take one picture at the recommended settings, then turn your exposure compensation button (+/-) to +1 and take another. Repeat this at -1 and you’ll end up with three pictures of different brightnesses. Later, when editing them on your computer, you can decide which exposure looks best and even combine multiple images in Photoshop or Lightroom (using the new Merge to HDR feature in LR CC or LR 6) to get the most detail possible.

Good light, the right equipment, the right settings, a strong composition, and a good exposure all work hand-in-hand to ensure you’ll make captivating landscape photographs.


Here on dPS this is landscape week – here is list of what we’ve covered so far. Watch for a new article (or two) on landscape photography daily for the next couple days.

Read more from our Tips & Tutorials category

Anne McKinnell is a photographer, writer and nomad. She lives in an RV and travels around North America photographing beautiful places and writing about travel, photography, and how changing your life is not as scary as it seems. You can read about her adventures on her blog and be sure to check out her free photography eBooks.

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